Students tour the Archibald Motley museum premiere

By Ashley Weber, Staff Writer for the Hillside Chronicle

A few weeks ago, the marketing department at the Nasher Museum at Duke University invited Hillside students, along with a few other high school students, to the premiere of the Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist exhibition. The exhibition was created and organized by Richard J. Powell. His goal was to bring recognition to one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, Archibald J. Motley.

Motley was born in New Orleans, Louisiana but lived and worked in Chicago for most of his life. Mr. Motley was one of the first classically trained African American artists in the Twentieth Century. Mr. Motley had a way of bringing his portraits to life. In the exhibit, Mr. Motley has portraits of his family and friends, Bronzeville Street club scenes, painting of his time spent in Paris, as well as other experiences from the various places he traveled.

One of my favorite paintings was a portrait of his grandmother. The painting looked so realistic I felt as if I was seeing her in person. Another favorite painting of mine was of a woman who was one-eighth black. This really showed how talented he was as a painter and how he could capture all shades of skin color. One of Mr. Motley’s famous quotes is, “I don’t paint black people, I paint colored people.” In his painting he had a variety of shades of white and black people.

Mr. Motley had a true talent for capturing images as they really are.


Motley: A Full-Blown Expressionist

We landed the cover of INDYweek, thanks to a thoughtful and nuanced review by Chris Vitiello.

IndyWeek Motley Cover Full

The cover image is a detail of Motley’s irresistable 1961 oil painting, “Hot Rhythm”. The play on words is fun, too; a few smartphones around here auto-correct the artist’s name to heavy metal rock band Mötley Crue.

We always appreciate Vitiello’s bright eyes on our exhibitions.

“Instead of telling the story of an artist’s development,” Vitiello writes, “the show presents Motley as a major American Expressionist painter.” He goes on to point out how this exhibition, which originated at the Nasher Museum, seeks to restore Motley to the annals of art history. “In this, it answers a big question: Why isn’t Archibald Motley better known?” Vitiello writes.  “How come museum gift shops stock Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden calendars but not Motley ones? His Jazz Age scenes of raucous nightclubs are Harlem Renaissance slideshow standards, but his name remains outside the mainstream that Lawrence and Bearden inhabit. While the other painters are wonderful stylists, Motley is a full-blown Expressionist.”

“After its Nasher debut, Archibald Motley continues on to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York,” Vitiello writes. “After that, Motley will likely be known as a great American Expressionist whose critical vision reveals more about race in the 20th century than almost any other artist of his time. Maybe he’ll finally get that kitchen-wall calendar after all.”

We also enjoyed how Vitiello considered the Motley exhibition alongside N.C. State’s Gregg Museum’s presentation of Phyllis Galembo’s large-format photographs of West African ceremonial and tribal costuming.

IMAGE: Cover of INDYweek, February 12, 2014.  Archibald J. Motley Jr., Hot Rhythm, 1961. Oil on canvas, 40 x 48.375 inches (101.6 x 122.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.


Sweet Walls

They talked about Sweet Tarts, the childhood candy. They talked about Easter pastels.
In the end, guest curator Richard J. Powell and chief preparator Brad Johnson, in consultation with other museum staff, selected eight pastel colors for the walls of Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.
White walls would not have been the right choice to enhance the vibrant, unexpected colors on Motley’s canvases. White walls would have “pulled something away” from the works, Brad said. “It definitely needed some color.”



TOP: Chief Preparator Brad Johnson considers a dizzying choice of colors in a Pantone book. MIDDLE: Gallery view of pastel-colored walls, with Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s Mending Socks, 1924, in foreground.Collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burton Emmett Collection, 58.1.2801. © Valerie Gerrard Browne. In background, Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s Brown Girl After the Bath, 1931. Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2007.015. © Valerie Gerrard Browne. Photos by Wendy Hower.



CHICAGO: If you want to know more about Archibald Motley, you will want to know about Bronzeville.

Great American modernist painter Archibald Motley loved to walk the streets of Bronzeville, a once-thriving neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. There, he would gather scenes and characters for his paintings.

We visited Bronzeville recently, in anticipation of the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in 20 years, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, opening January 30 at the Nasher Museum. Our guide: scholar Davarian Baldwin, who contributed an essay to the forthcoming Motley exhibition catalogue. Baldwin jumped into a taxi with us on Michigan Avenue and took us south to what was known in the 1920s during the Great Migration as “The Stroll.” Back then, 35th and State streets were a major leisure and entertainment district for African Americans. As Baldwin spoke, Michigan Mile skyscrapers outside the taxi windows gave way to far humbler architecture. “We’re heading south into the area that would later be called Bronzeville, that he represented so beautifully in his paintings,” Baldwin said. “What he called these urban nocturnes, these street scenes, these night scenes.”

African Americans turned segregation into congregation, as historian Earl Lewis put it, Baldwin told us. “They created their own theaters, their own institutions.”

Motley once said he would find a lot of his “race” in these night scenes, and that is what interested him. Today, Chicago’s South Side is still largely an African American community, Baldwin said, although Bronzeville does not exist the way Motley knew it.

“It was a vibrant urban landscape, and I like to call Motley the painter laureate of the black modern city scape,” Baldwin said.

“He really reflected the energy, the dynamism, the action, the pace of black urban living. In the face of real constraints, real racial constraints.”

Look for more Baldwin’s thoughts on Archibald Motley and Bronzeville in a forthcoming video to be featured on this website.


ABOVE: Scholar Davarian Baldwin takes us on a taxi tour of Bronzeville, which was a vibrant neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side 50 years ago, during the lifetime of painter Archibald Motley. Photo by J Caldwell.


ABOVE: Artist Archibald Motley most certainly visited this 1932 Art Deco building, the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library. Photo by J Caldwell.


ABOVE: Davarian Baldwin points out some of the still-standing architectural “bones” of Bronzeville. Photo by J Caldwell.
NOTE: Davarian Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In addition to numerous articles and essays, Baldwin is the author of Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2007). He is also coeditor (with Minkah Makalani) of the forthcoming collection Escape from New York: The “Harlem Renaissance” Reconsidered (University of Minnesota Press). Baldwin is currently at work on two new single-authored projects, Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and UniverCities: How Higher Education Is Transforming Urban America. He also serves as editor of the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: Using the Present to Excavate the Past (Greenwood).

Looking for Archibald Motley: The Art Institute

The great American modernist painter lived and worked here in the first half of the 20th century. What inspired Motley? How did he leave his mark? We wanted to get to know Motley better, in anticipation of the first solo exhibition of his work in 20 years, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, opening January 30 at the Nasher Museum.First stop: the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world’s most beautiful art museums. Here, Motley graduated in 1918, a rare education for an African American artist at that time. Two major Motley paintings are on view–his 1929 scene of a Paris night club, Blues, and his Self Portrait of 1920.We experienced the one-two punch of seeing the works of this master colorist in person and learning about them from Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, who is organizing the Motley exhibition at the Nasher Museum, and Chicago-based artist Dawoud Bey.Bey and Powell’s words on the subject will be part of a forthcoming video. But they both agree: You need to see Motley’s paintings in person, and his colors (on multiple levels) will stay with you.Dawoud Bey and Richard J. Powell
Motley’s Chicago has changed so much. He died in 1981, almost 30 years before the opening of the Art Institute’s grand new Modern Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano. A glittering 625-foot pedestrian bridge soars from the Modern Wing, across Monroe Street and over to Millennium Park. We were dazzled by Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, known as “the bean,” a highly polished stainless steel sculpture that reflected ourselves and the shimmering Chicago skyline.
But the “bones” of the Chicago that Motley knew are still there.

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate

TOP: Richard J. Powell (left) , John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, visits the Art Institute with Chicago-based artist Dawoud Bey. MIDDLE: Bey and Powell (right) talk about Archibald Motley’s 1929 painting Blues and his 1920 Self Portrait. ABOVE: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate reflects the city back to itself in Millennium Park.

South Side Community Art Center

The South Side Community Art Center opened in December, 1940, with a show of well-known local painters and sculptors: Henry Avery, William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Joseph Kersey, Margaret and Bernard Goss, William McBride, among others. Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated it in May, 1941 in a ceremony that was broadcast nationally via the Columbia Broadcasting Radio System network. Currently the South Side Community Art Center continues to act as a resource for the arts community locally and abroad. As the oldest African American Art Center in existence it takes pride in its past and present contributions to the development and showcasing of emerging and established artists.


For more information on South Side Community Art Center visit